High vehicle taxes mean that less than one-fifth of Hong Kong’s residents travel through the city from behind the wheel of their own car. However, levies also encourage people to use public transport: over 90% of daily journeys are made this way, the highest rate in the world.
The city’s highly efficient public transport network is one of the reasons Hong Kong has taken the top spot on Arcadis’s Sustainable Cities Mobility Index, an offshoot of their Sustainable Cities Index report.
The global design and consultancy firm partnered with the Centre for Economic and Business Research (Cebr) to assess the social and human implications of urban mobility systems, their environmental impact and ability to facilitate growth and support business. Twenty-three indicators – including the share of trips taken by public transport, greenhouse gas emissions, and commuting travel times – were used to rank 100 global cities. An average of each city’s score in the people, planet and profit sub-indexes was then used to create the overall scores and rankings.
“Hong Kong scores so highly because public transit is so efficient,” says John Batten, global cities director at Arcadis. In particular, the city’s modern, well-organised and well-funded mass transit railway (MTR) network helped it secure first place in the people sub-index and sixth in profit, giving it the edge over rival Asian cities, such as Seoul (fourth) and Singapore (eighth).
“They take a few hits in terms of greenhouse gas emissions,” Batten says, which was the main reason for Hong Kong’s relatively low rank (53rd) in the planet sub-index, “but they make up for it in terms of the utilisation of public transport.”
MTR (Mass Transit Railway) – a public corporation – reported revenues of $HK45.18bn (£4.4bn) in 2016, with a net profit of HK$10.25bn (£1bn). Its farebox recovery ratio (the percentage of operational costs covered by fares) is the highest in the world, at 186%, and MTR also owns malls, shopping centres and other types of real estate around its metro stations. This helps to diversify its income and pay for line extensions and other improvements to the rail network – a model now being exported to mainland China.
“There’s MTR construction going on throughout Hong Kong – new hubs, new stations, new line expansions,” says Batten. “It invests heavily in the system. And investment is really a hallmark of high-performing cities.”
The fact that MTR is “as much a commercial developer as they are a public transport operator”, also marks it out as highly innovative. MTR’s Octopus smartcard also allows people to pay for travel and items from convenience stores, fast-food shops and supermarkets, and there is 3G across the network.
Private cars v public transport
European and Asian cities fared better than US cities in the index: of the top 10 places, seven are European, while New York, at 23, was the highest-placed US city.
“A lot of cities in North America are basically organised with very large suburbs, and within those suburbs people tend to have very few options other than commuting in a private car,” says Nina Skero, head of macroeconomics at Cebr. “That private car is often heavily polluting. That weighed down the overall scores for a lot of North American cities.”
Registration taxes of between 40% and 155% of the sales value have made petrol and diesel cars prohibitively expensive for many Hong Kong residents. This has spurred the adoption of electric vehicles – particularly Tesla’s models – although the tax waiver that encouraged their adoption recently ended, and sales have since stalled.
Even with the tax disincentive, sales of private cars have increased over the past decade, which has contributed to traffic jams and poor air quality. The latter is exacerbated by emissions from container ships entering Hong Kong’s bustling port, a problem that afflicts almost all port cities, as well as smog blowing in from mainland China.
Unlike many other leading cities, Hong Kong has been slow to embrace bike-sharing schemes. According to Batten this could be down to the city’s topography (hilly) and climate (hot). But walking is definitely getting a boost through the transformation of Kowloon East into a second core business district.
As well as improving the area’s connectivity with MTR stations and other forms of infrastructure, the Energizing Kowloon East Office (EKEO) is trying to create a more pleasant pedestrian environment by cleaning up back alleys and integrating them with existing pedestrian routes. The wider streetscape and open spaces are also being improved, while the My Kowloon East mobile app aims to further boost walking rates by suggesting personalised routes, such as sheltered and barrier-free paths.
The app’s smart-parking function also provides real-time parking vacancy data. “We hope that this application could help drivers in finding a nearby parking space quickly, minimising unnecessary car journeys and air pollution,” a spokesperson from EKEO explains.
The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, a high-speed cross-border rail link to Guangzhou, and the third runway at Hong Kong International airport (HKIA) look set to dramatically change Hong Kong’s transport infrastructure.
The 55km-long bridge will shorten the distance from Hong Kong to Macau and Zhuhai, from 160km to 30km, and should encourage closer economic ties with the Pearl River Delta region. However, the bridge has been beset by delays and there are fears that an increase in vehicles from China will increase the pressure on Hong Kong’s congested roads.
James Wang, associate professor in the department of geography at the University of Hong Kong, and a member of the Hong Kong 2030+ expert advisory panel, also has concerns about the project. “What kind of vehicles will use the bridge? If it’s buses, fine – that means more people on each vehicle, but much less traffic. But that also means you don’t get enough return [from tolls] for the cost of building it.”
Mobility extends far beyond a city’s geographical boundaries, so traffic through a city’s main airport is included as an indicator in the people sub-index – and HKIA is one of the world’s busiest. The airport is operating at 99% capacity, but a third runway, which is due to open in 2024, will ease the pressure and improve Hong Kong’s (and mainland China’s) connections with the rest of the world.
The Hong Kong to Guangzhou high-speed rail link is expected to begin operation in 2018 and will reduce the journey time from slightly over two hours to 48 minutes. However, this project has also faced delays.
Despite setbacks, all these projects demonstrate Hong Kong’s commitment to continuing to improve its impressive and tightly integrated transport infrastructure.
Read the Arcadis Sustainable Cities Mobility Index to find out more about Hong Kong’s approach to mobility, as well as that of other leading cities.
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